What are they and what is the difference between genocide, war crimes and crimes against lese?

(CNN Spanish) — The terrible images of the corpses of civilians found in Bucha after the Ukrainian forces retook control of this city on the outskirts of Kyiv, after being under the power of Russia, went around the world last week. Similar scenes in other towns in Ukraine, such as Irpin and Hostomel, were known days later, after which world leaders spoke of a possible “genocide”, including the president of the United States, Joe Biden.

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, asked the UN Security Council to try members of the Russian Army and “those who gave them orders” to carry out attacks in Ukraine for “war crimes”. In this sense, he proposed that all Russians who have given “criminal orders” and “executed them by killing our people” be brought before a court, similar to the Nuremberg trials that took place after World War II, when to the Nazis.

But just two days earlier, Zelensky also said: “This is genocide. This is the elimination of an entire nation and its people,” during CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program.

Initially, Biden described the events as a “war crime”. And he added that it is not a genocide, speaking to journalists on Monday.

But this Tuesday Biden changed his position: he said that the atrocities being discovered in Ukraine qualify as genocide, as scenes emerge of devastated cities that were invaded by Russian troops.

“I called it genocide because it’s becoming clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to eliminate even the possibility of being Ukrainian. The evidence is mounting,” Biden told reporters in Iowa after previously using the term. in his speech.

While the Russian Foreign Ministry, for its part, said the images were a “provocation” and a “deception” on the part of the Ukrainian government.

Bucha, massacred by passing Russian forces 2:13

CNN has not been able to independently confirm details surrounding the deaths of the civilians in Bucha.

What, then, are the differences between war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide? And, which of all could be applied to these facts?

What constitutes genocide?

The international community has had a clear definition of genocide since 1951, when the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force.

According to this document, signed by 152 countries –including the United States and Russia–, genocide is understood as “acts (…) perpetrated with the intention of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious.”

The Convention then details these acts:

  • Killing of group members.
  • Serious injury to the physical or mental integrity of the members of the group.
  • Intentional submission of the group to conditions of existence that will lead to its total or partial physical destruction.
  • Measures aimed at preventing births within the group.
  • Forced transfer of children from the group to another group.

Children after the liberation of the extermination camp set up by the Nazis at Auschwitz, in 1945. (Credit: AP)

It also states that the following acts will be punished:

  • The genocide.
  • The association to commit genocide.
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide.
  • The attempted genocide.
  • complicity in genocide.

Who can judge acts of genocide? When have they been judged?

This definition of genocide was adopted by the 1998 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague, the Netherlands.

The ICC is the main arena where the crime of genocide can be tried. But, contrary to the broad acceptance of the Convention, only 123 countries have signed the Rome Statute, and among those missing — which do not recognize the court — are the United States, Russia, China and Israel, among others.

In the past, crimes of genocide –as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity– were tried in special UN tribunals, as is the case in Nuremberg, Tokyo, Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

What are war crimes?

The ICC is also in charge of judging war crimes, which it defines in this way:

“War crimes include serious breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in ‘non-international’ conflicts listed in the Rome Statute, when committed as part of a plan or policy or on a large scale,” says the ICC.


The International Criminal Court in The Hague. (Credit: Frank van Beek/ICJ via Getty Images)

Thus, the conventions of The Hague of 1899 and 1907, those of Geneva in 1864 and 1949 (plus the protocols of 1977), are the main instruments that identify war crimes, such as:

  • Murder.
  • Mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.
  • Hostage taking.
  • Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population.
  • Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historical monuments or hospitals.
  • Pillage.
  • Rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or any other form of sexual violence.
  • Recruitment or enlistment of children under the age of 15 into armed forces or groups or using them to actively participate in hostilities.

“Many of the norms contained in these treaties have been considered part of customary law and, as such, are binding on all states (and other parties to the conflict), whether or not they have ratified the treaties themselves,” the UN says.

What are crimes against humanity?

Crimes against humanity are the most difficult to define and prove, and at the moment there are no international treaties dedicated exclusively to them.

The controversy over the Armenian genocide

The UN notes that for many the term was first used to describe the atrocities perpetrated by European countries in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, although others point to a 1915 declaration by the Allied powers to refer to the massacre of Armenians. by the Ottoman Empire.

Although there is no treaty dedicated to crimes against humanity, the Rome Statute places them within the jurisdiction of the ICC and describes them as “any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”, and offers this list:

  • Murder.
  • Extermination.
  • enslavement.
  • Deportation or forced transfer of population.
  • Imprisonment.
  • Torture.
  • Rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity.
  • Persecution against an identifiable group for political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender reasons.
  • The forced disappearance of people.
  • The crime of apartheid.
  • Other inhumane acts of a similar nature intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental harm.

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